Caring for Your Textiles

image of stack of quilts

Handling

Since textiles are so mundane and so much an everyday part of our lives, we rarely think about how we handle them. With antique textiles however, it is important to observe proper handling techniques to reduce the chance of them being damaged. Follow these steps to avoid more damage:

  • Always wash your hands with soap and water before touching any antique textiles.
  • Avoid the use of lotions or perfumes because the oils from these products could stain and further damage the item.
  • Remove any jewelry that could snag or catch on the fabric.
  • Handle the fabric as little as possible. If you must move the textile, completely support it using acid free paper or an old bed sheet. If it is a large object, such as a quilt, consider using the sheet as a sling and have someone help you move it.
  • Never eat, drink, or smoke around antique textiles as these actions can stain the fabric.

Light

Light is one of the most degrading of threats to textiles. It leads to fading (and once an item has lost its color, the color cannot be restored) and embrittlement of fibers. These suggestions will help reduce the damage light can cause:

  • Display textiles away from direct sunlight, in areas such as hallways.
  • Rotate textiles on display or refold them occasionally to vary the sections exposed to light.
  • Draw shades or curtains during the day when you are not at home and when the sun is strongest.

Just as with human skin, the ultraviolet (UV) spectrum is the most damaging. Consider framing textiles individually using UV-filtering glass or UV-filtering acrylic.

Temperature and Humidity

When textiles are exposed to extremes of temperature and humidity the fibers can weaken and break. Extremes in humidity, from low to high can also lead to mold growth. The ideal environment for textiles is a constant temperature range of 68°F to 75°F and a constant humidity level between 40% and 57%. To control extremes, follow this advice:

  • Store textiles in the main part of your home, not in unfinished basements or attics that are prone to the greatest changes in temperature and humidity.
  • Do not let air from vents blow directly over textiles as this can lead to accumulations of dust which, over time, is damaging.

If you find active mold on an historic textile, isolate the textile immediately to prevent mold spores from transferring to other objects. Wrap the textile in polyethylene sheeting and place it in a freezer if possible. Consult a conservator as soon as possible for help—this is an emergency situation.

Housekeeping

Regular removal of debris from around the house will reduce the presence of airborne dust and grazing insect pests. Insects such as moths and carpet beetles can wreak havoc on your collection and may be very difficult to eradicate if allowed to spread throughout the house. Always check closets and storage boxes seasonally for signs of insect infestation.

Textiles that are in good, stable condition can usually be cleaned with a canister-style vacuum.

Cover the end of the nozzle with nylon netting or cheesecloth. Secure the netting/cheesecloth to the nozzle with a rubber band, then place your hand between the covered nozzle and the textile to prevent the suction from pulling any of the textile into the vacuum.

Start at one end of the textile and work in one direction without dragging the brush or nozzle over the surface. Just remember: not all textiles can be safely vacuumed—some are simply too fragile. If in doubt, consult a conservator first.

Display

When having textiles framed, request that acid-free materials be used. Embroideries should be framed using spacers, so that frames and glass or acrylic sheets are not in direct contact with the textile. Quilts and other flat textiles that are in good condition may be displayed using hanging sleeves. Consult a conservator to determine if such methods are appropriate for your textiles.

Storage

The term “acid free” is used to describe materials that are safe for storing historic objects. But, what exactly does this term mean? Acid free means that the lignin, or the acid-producing agent in wood pulp, has been removed. Acid-free materials, boxes and wrapping papers, can be bought from archival retailers or from local stores. Archival-quality acid-free materials will be labeled acid free. Follow these guidelines when storing textiles:

  • Do not place textiles in direct contact with wood as in cedar chests or on wooden hangers. The acid in the wood will cause textiles to yellow.
  • Do not use wire or plastic hangers. Padded hangers are best because they provide better support for antique garments. However, garments that have fragile shoulder seams or heavy beadwork should not be hung on any type of hanger. Rather, they should be stored in boxes.
  • Use acid-free boxes to store large textiles.
  • If acid free boxes are not available, use white or light-colored bed sheets to wrap textiles. The sheet will protect textiles from light and dust and will enable you to see pest infestations more readily.
  • Do not store textiles in plastic dry-cleaning bags or plastic tote boxes as these contain plasticizers that can harm fibers and even change colors of dyes. They can also create microclimates that are perfect environments for mold.

Suppliers

Use the following online suppliers to find supplies of archival paper, acid-free tissue and boxes, and some of the other items you might need to protect your textiles:
Gaylord Brothers 
University Products 
Talas